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Protestant work ethic behind stronger northern Europe economy: study

A European team of researchers led by the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom postulates that the 'Protestant work ethic' that emerged in the 19th century may have helped to propel the economies of northern Europe over their southern neighbours. The study is presented ...
Protestant work ethic behind stronger northern Europe economy: study
A European team of researchers led by the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom postulates that the 'Protestant work ethic' that emerged in the 19th century may have helped to propel the economies of northern Europe over their southern neighbours. The study is presented in two articles published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics and the Scandinavian Journal of Economics.

Lead author Dr Sascha Becker, the deputy head of Warwick's Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy (CAGE), collated data to determine if Max Weber's Protestant Work Ethic theory - that Protestantism encouraged hard work as a duty of faith - fuelled people's understanding of how Protestant areas developed compared to Catholic areas.

In cooperation with colleagues, Dr Becker used data from 19th century Prussia and assessed 450 counties. The data show that Protestant areas had achieved higher educational levels, and the labour force was active mostly in the services and manufacturing sector rather than the agriculture sector. The figures also indicate a larger income gap between those in Protestant areas and those in Catholic areas.

'We looked at Prussia in the 19th century because this was the society that Max Weber was born into,' Dr Becker says. 'Religiosity was also more pervasive at this time. It seems religion was the main driver behind education differences, Protestants were more encouraged to go to school and read the bible, and this higher level of education translated into higher incomes than their Catholic neighbours.'

Because the Reformers followed through on plans to get church schools operating in all parishes in the Protestant areas in the 16th century, Protestants had an educational advantage over Catholics. According to the researchers, the Catholics only bridged the gap 100 years later.

'It was only centuries later when compulsory schooling was introduced that the Catholics began to catch up with the Protestants,' Dr Becker points out. 'Even today, looking at data from 2000 in Germany we found that Protestants had higher level or more education than Catholics. They also had a higher probability of going to university and finishing their course.'

The findings also show that women in Protestant areas were inclined to be more liberated because girls and boys were educated together.

Says Dr Becker: 'Again it is this educational advantage that Protestant girls were sent to school with the boys in the early years of the Reformation. It seems Protestantism was an early driver of emancipation. The order seems to be Protestant men, Protestant women, Catholic men and then far, far below are Catholic women. It is surprising that even today we find that in Scandinavia the majority of women go out to work, but in Italy it is more traditional and a larger number stay home to look after the children.'

The study is interesting, according to Dr Becker, particularly because of the current debt crisis in Europe. 'It is noticeable that the northern European countries seem to be doing well to keep their finances in check whereas in southern European countries such as Spain and Italy, everything is running out of order. I would not say you can attribute this to religion per se, but it certainly had a bearing on the way their respective economies have developed. There is a north/south divide and a popular feeling in northern Europe that they should not have to bail out their debt-ridden southern neighbours.'

Source: Quarterly Journal of Economics; Scandinavian Journal of Economics; University of Warwick

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  • Germany
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